Saturday, March 23, 2019

An Origin and an Ending


On February 12th, 2019 at 6:41 in the morning, I experienced the greatest origin there is - the arrival of our daughter after 26 long hours of unmedicated labor. Life changed in an instant with the birth of our baby and my subsequent birth as a mother. Our girl has already taught me everything and then some about being in the moment, letting go of control, cultivating gratitude, and amplifying love.

I'd been contemplating for some time - years really - how and when to write the final entry for this blog. I want to keep writing, tried to start again here, but never quite found my momentum. Life has moved forward. I have a new home now, a new partner, a new family. I'm a new person. Only right that I'd have a new space in which to share.

And with new beginnings there are endings. The news of Cyclone Idai last week, and the subsequent devastation of Mozambique's central region (as well as Zimbabwe and Malawi) has my mind and heart back in Africa. It's surreal to see the places I lived and worked in when I started this blog back in 2005 completely underwater, decimated, the future precarious and uncertain.

Photo credit: Denis Onyodi/IFRC/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Here is a link to donate to relief efforts - I personally know the country director for Save the Children Mozambique and, despite all my NGO cynicism documented in this blog, this is the best way I know to help at the moment - cash aid, in the hands of a team I know is "real".

May these waters recede and somehow there be a thousand miracles.

If you'd like to stay in touch, you can find me at www.originsandroutes.com - a space that is still very much a work in progress. I will be starting a blog over there, and updating the content regularly.

Much love and my most sincere thank you for following me here over the past fourteen years. Here's looking forward to the next chapter, the next routes, the next adventures.

xx,
Ali

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Books Roundup 2018

This year I have torn through the books (in paper, not digital, I just can't with the e-readers). Reading brought relief when grieving the loss of my pregnancy with Baby AB, relaxation while on the beach in Hawaii, and welcome entertainment while in Peci where there is no internet or even a good phone signal. Here is the list of the 16 books I've read so far in 2018:


The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
This was my first book of the year. Fresh with grief and having taken a physical pummeling from the loss of the baby and resulting hormonal swings, I desperately needed a book I could lose myself in. My mom gifted me this book at just the right time. A mix of anthropology, adventure travel, and radar technology, this true story tells of a lost city being found in the Honduran jungle. Incredible to think that entire empires lie buried under vegetation. The title annoyed me (smacks of white male expedition marketed with exotic language to the people back home - which is exactly what it is on some level) but still I really enjoyed the story.


Song of the Lion and Spider Woman's Daughter by Anne Hillerman
I grew up reading Tony Hillerman's mysteries and remember staying up late, flipping the pages until my hands ached, unable to pull myself away from the stories of Leaphorn and Chee and the Dinè (Navajo) way of life. As a New Mexican, I appreciated the sense of place and often took Hillerman books with me while living abroad to soothe my saudades (or perhaps just make them worse). When I found out that Tony's daughter Anne had continued the mystery series, emphasizing the perspective of Bernadette Manuelito, a female detective, I was excited to return to the characters and scenery I so enjoyed years ago. Unfortunately it was a letdown. Perhaps I'd excessively built up my expectations, or maybe it was the difference of reading as an adult vs. a teenager, but I found the storylines to be predictable and lacking that urgent page-turning quality I remembered in the original series. I read these on while on our honeymoon in Hawaii in February, and they were definitely good enough for a beach read or to pass the time on the plane. I don't plan on reading more in the series, though... 


Love Africa by Jeffrey Gettleman
This one hit me hard. Part travel narrative, part political essay, part memoir. Intelligent yet humble writing, and deep honesty from the author about his past mistakes. I loved the stories, felt compassion for the characters, and appreciated the complexity of the situations in which the author found himself. It also stirred up nostalgia for East Africa, and a desire to keep traveling and keep writing no matter what. Fantastic book, I can't wait to read more from him.


Shark Drunk by Morten Stroksnes
The story of trying to catch a Greenland shark, a poorly-understood cold water giant that I'd first heard about while watching the tv show River Monsters and found fascinating. I was expecting a mix of science, adventure, and Nordic culture - and I suppose it was all of those things - but somehow the book dragged on and felt bland. Maybe it was because of translating nuances (it was originally written in Norwegian), or maybe it was just an accurate portrayal of the slow pace of time while fishing. Whatever the reason, I found it very difficult to get through and nearly abandoned ship several times before finally, stubbornly, turning the last page.


The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
This was perhaps my favorite of all 2018. A true story, set in San Francisco and Yemen, about a young man who successfully revitalizes the Yemeni coffee industry despite widespread skepticism, production challenges, and war. A story of entrepreneurship, agriculture, development, politics, immigration, cultural ambassadorship, and global commerce. And, of course, coffee. I learned so much and can't wait to try a cup of specialty Yemeni brew one day here in San Francisco, even though it is hard to find and costs $16/cup, and as a pedestrian coffee drinker I am unlikely to appreciate its subtle aroma and palate qualities. Still, because of this story, I want to try it.


The Sober Diaries by Claire Pooley
I LOVED THIS BOOK. My interest in sober living started about three years ago as I contemplated the role alcohol played in my previous marriage/life chapter. My ex was a happy and frequent drinker, as was his family, as were our friends. Our respective cultures reinforced this norm, as did our lifestyle (expat development workers and frequent travelers tend to be a heavy-drinking lot). Without really noticing, I'd become a habitual drinker. Bored? How about a drink. In an airport? Obviously time for a beer. Celebrating? Drink. Bad news? Drink. School sucks? Have a glass of wine with that essay. Work challenging? Drink to decompress. Gallery slow? How about some bubbly to pass the time. Weekend? Day drink. Weekday? Vino with dinner. Anything, anything at all? Drink. Of course we were both very responsible people, kept up our obligations, never had "consequences," and in his eyes never had a problem...but for me there was a quiet and increasingly desperate feeling that something was very, very wrong. I started to cut back on my own consumption, and then after our divorce I had the opportunity to further examine my own habits and behavior and make some big changes. I still have an occasional drink, but my relationship with alcohol has changed completely. It is now the exception rather than the rule. I don't get drinks on auto pilot, and I certainly don't buy into the idea that you need alcohol to have fun, or cope, or be accepted. My current husband has a very similar approach, and our life is sober most of the time, often for long stretches. THIS BOOK WAS SO AFFIRMING OF THESE DECISIONS. Claire Pooley is a hilarious writer, and hearing how she became sober and then how she beat breast cancer while maintaining sobriety was inspiring. I highly recommend it, especially if you are reexamining your relationship with alcohol.


Alburquerque by Rudolfo Anaya
It's always fun to read a book set in your hometown, and this was no exception. Magical, mystical, poignant, and engaging. I hadn't read Rudolfo Anaya since high school, and it was like visiting an old friend. The storyline was compelling, felt ancient and modern all at once, and I loved the characters. Anyone with a connection to New Mexico will particularly enjoy reading this book.


Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
What a punch to the gut and embrace to the heart. I bawled and cringed and laughed while reading Cheryl Strayed's no-bullshit advice to others, punctuated with devastating and uplifting stories from her own life. My friend Heather had recommended this to me shortly after we lost Baby AB, and I was happy to find this in my mom's bookshelf. Definitely helped me find perspective and strength.


Deep South by Paul Theroux
This road trip narrative tells devastating and hopeful stories from America's southern states. I appreciated the author's attempt to present many perspectives, cultures, and ways of life. From gun shows to shacks in the Delta, economic ghost towns to sites where black youth were murdered, churches to restaurants, and the long stretches of highway in-between, the reader comes away with a real sense of the history and struggle and complexity of the region. I found the more academic interludes a little hard to get through, but the actual stories from the road were captivating. Highly recommend.


Robicheaux by James Lee Burke
I enjoyed reading all of the previous Dave Robicheaux detective novels, and this was no exception. Gritty, well-written, and full of Louisiana culture. The storyline was unpredictable and made for a real page-turner, although not ideal for bedtime reading because of the often gory situations.  


Red Sparrow and Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews
More not-ideal-before-bedtime reading, but oh so good. These spy novels are intelligent, complex, and compelling tales of politics, love, loyalty and betrayal. The main characters are very well developed. I enjoyed all the Russian language and culture, and the recipes at the end of each chapter are an unexpected bonus. I can't wait to read the final book from this trilogy.


The Pregnancy Instruction Manual by Sarah Jordan and David Ufberg
The Baby Owner's Manual by Louis Borgenicht and Joe Borgenicht
Now that I'm pregnant again (baby Anastasia is due in February 2019) my friend Marjana gave me these books that she'd enjoyed reading before her first child was born a several years ago. They are practical, easy to understand, and comprehensive. That said, both books are oriented to heterosexual couples and pander to antiquated gender roles. Mom gets tips for how to dress during pregnancy (avoid stripes that make you look larger that you already are!) and Dad is reminded to switch off Sports Center and make himself useful around the house. I get that it's an attempt at humor, but ugh. Otherwise useful books, and I'm sure I'll be consulting them in the future.


Ina May's Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin
This book is my Bible right now. I want to have an unmedicated vaginal birth in a hospital, so I'm trying to read everything I can about how birth is a natural and empowering process that women are entitled to experience free from a culture of fear. I love reading all of the birth stories from the Farm. These women and midwives are incredibly inspiring. I'll likely reread this about 10 times between now and February!

That's it! I'm proud to have read so much and look forward to squeezing in maybe one or two more books before the end of the year. What have you read lately that you really enjoyed? 

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Shyness

My first time in Grand Central Station. Looking down while Roberto looks up through the lens.

Several weeks ago Roberto and I went to New York to visit my cousin Anders. While there we went to this shop called, well, SHOP, a hyper-colorful, heavily curated concept store that changes its theme every season. Full of clever gift items, there was also the occasional show stopper, like the giant unicorn pool floatie that was in the middle of the space when we visited (the theme was Out of Office, an ode to endless lazy vacation days).

Anyhow, while at SHOP Anders bought a pack of cards that is supposed to generate ideas for small talk, improving your conversational skills, or simply getting to know people better. Later that evening we pulled random cards from the deck over a midnight snack of leftover donuts. Some of the prompts were pretty predictable (What did you want to be when you were a kid?) some were amusing (What's a guilty pleasure?) others were deep (Do you value mercy or justice more?) and a couple were downright cringe-worthy (What relative do you like the least?).

One of the cards I found strangely difficult to answer was "What circumstances make you shy?"

My initial reaction was silence, because I'm not at all a shy person and it took me multiple minutes of thinking to even come up with some candidate scenarios...and even then, not really! Like I am reluctant to ask strangers for directions when I'm lost because I don't want people to know that I'm disoriented or not "from" a particular place. I'm reluctant to interact because the information I'd share makes me feel vulnerable, not because I'm timid about the approach. The other scenarios I came up with were also one-off from shyness, like not wanting to talk about certain accomplishments (modesty), occasionally being quiet at dinner parties (paranoid about being a motor mouth), or back in the day deciding not to get gelato because I didn't know the words in Italian for 'scoop' and 'cone' and the embarrassment I was sure to suffer because of that was greater than my desire for ice cream (stupidity - now I get gelato despite any linguistic limitations).

My friend Hilary is perhaps the most shy person I know. We were in jewelry school together and bonded over a mutual love of running. We've been meeting for weekly runs for over 6 years now, and the funny thing is that while we run we talk nonstop - both of us! There's nothing like chatting to make the time and the miles fly by, especially when training for long distances. I believe that being side-by-side while we run (as opposed to face-to-face) takes the pressure off and makes it easier for a shy person to chat. In my case it makes me talk less because Hilary is in better shape than I am and so I reach a point of huffing and puffing and not being able to hold a conversation much faster than she does, so it's a good balance!

What made me think of shyness was the realization that the place I quiet my voice the most these days is here, on my blog. Sometimes I long to write and will spend hours composing in my head and feeling the itch to get my fingers on the keyboard, and yet I hold back. It's not writer's block - the instant I sit down the words pour out. Rather it's censorship, fear of oversharing, a questioning whether my current stories truly belong in this place so rooted in the past or whether I need to find a new home. I miss writing, be it about unremarkable daily routines or major stuff like marriage, miscarriage, and how to crack the code of living 6 months in California and 6 months in Italy (current conundrum). I know the way forward is to keep writing, be it here, in a private diary, on scraps of paper, whatever. Doubts about where to write shouldn't be an impediment to writing. So here I am, despite my shyness, showing up to say hello.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Catching Feelings


I just watched the South African film "Catching Feelings" by director-actor Kagiso Lediga. It came up as a suggestion on Netflix and I jumped on it. The cinematography left me with massive nostalgia for Johannesburg: the jacaranda-lined streets, the gray skies, the unique vibe, and oh that accent...I so miss that accent! But it wasn't all purple blossoms and good times: there was also realistic portrayal of the challenges in urban South Africa: drunk driving, bribing police, fenced and guarded homes and accompanying race-based fear, immediate discrimination of the main character by both whites and blacks when he loses his shoes and appears poor and possibly homeless, shantytown tourism by wealthy white foreigners, sexism, cell phone addiction, and in general lots of moral ambiguity.

I found it interesting that there was a distinction between Cape Town's racial situation (the only black people in a hip, upscale restaurant are the main character's party and the waiters; the student body at the university is majority white) and that of Joburg (portrayal of many middle and upper-middle class blacks with prominent positions in companies and academic institutions; nice restaurants and social events with racially diverse patrons; mixed race couples and friends groups; university student body majority black).

Although the movie is about an unhappy marriage and the moral boundaries of the main couple and their friends, the subtext is all about identity and racial politics (to paraphrase the main character, "I'm South African, everything is about race"). I appreciated that the film's perspective was not Eurocentric, and as an American I was interested in the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between our racial issues and those in South Africa. While I really enjoyed the film overall, I found the characters to be over-acted and many of the scenarios unbelievable, in particular the white "old man" author and how readily he is able to influence the main character and his wife, and how he is invited into their home. White privilege was brought up in the film but not explored very much, and I found it of note that colorism was not discussed at all (although it was most definitely present). Also how about those double standards regarding cheating for the main character and his wife?? And actually for the men in general? Ugh.

The role of alcohol and drugs in the film also struck me. The movie is basically about moral choices and behavioral gray area, and in 100% of the moments where characters make a critical move, they are massively drunk or high. It was frustrating to watch seemingly intelligent, educated, cultured, and independent characters lose all their willpower and convictions anytime alcohol is offered. Again, like the white privilege issue, there was a moment where the partying was scrutinized (Is this a problem? Do I need to be worried about you?), but instead of further exploring it, the questioner just jumped on the bandwagon and went bottoms up herself.

I guess I have a lot of critical points, and the movie definitely left me with a lot of food for thought. Overall, I definitely recommend it and am happy I took a chance on a random Netflix suggestion.

A final note is that the soundtrack to Catching Feelings was excellent. Tracks are listed below:

Chimanga – Dorothy Masuka
Let Me Live – Mpho Pholo & Moneoa Moshesh
Lenyora – Philip Tabane
Mama Liza – The Movers
Ngud (Ilala Vuka) – Kwesta featuring Casper Nyovest
Mahlalela (A.K.A Lazy Bones) by Letta Mbulu
Noma Themba – Letta Mbulu
Voice Inside – Lerato Moiloa
Joburg Girl – MXO
Ngubani Gama Lakho – MXO
Jungle Fever – MXO
Bring Back the Love – MXO
iZolo – MXO
Soweto Disco – The Movers
Why are you here – Ishmael Osekre
UNH! – Philip Tabane
Vidala Para Mi Sombra – Juana Pires Rafael and Ariel Zamonsky
100KMACASETTE by Okmalumkoolkat
Monsieur Bon Bon – Ebenhaezer Dibakwane
Mpahlenkulu – Mabiza and Zah
I Need You – David Kibuuka

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Belated Mom Love

A bit late, but better than never! Happy belated birthday to my Mama, and Happy Mother's Day as well. We had a great time celebrating her bday at a local nursery called Annie's Annuals. It's a literal oasis tucked away in an industrial and somewhat blighted corner of North Richmond. So many lush and unusual plants and flowers, truly a delight for the senses. My mom, who is a master gardener, was in heaven. Roberto and I were very inspired too.



Saturday, May 12, 2018

Book Three

Sunset from Hawaii's Big Island, understanding what this next phase is all about.

If moving to Mozambique was Book One, moving to California and starting art school was Book Two, then this is Book Three. I am still based in the Bay Area but the cast of characters is significantly different, as is my perspective. I feel deeply moved to write these days, but found myself questioning whether it was right to continue blogging here, in this space that is all about homes I no longer live in, a career I no longer have, and a man I am no longer married to.

Despite all that has changed, this is still the place where I feel the most comfortable sharing, documenting, and processing my life. I remind myself there is no "wrong" in continuing to write my own story, even if the space is imbued in memories of Books One and Two. What a blessing, really, to have this record to look back upon.

Thirteen years have gone by since I started this blog on a rainy evening in Austin. I am now 36, working as an artist and translator, married to a soulful Brazilian cinematographer named Roberto. We met in San Francisco through a mutual friend, a beautiful story for another day. We live in a light-filled apartment about 10 minutes away from my mom's house. My days are spent making jewelry and painting in my studio, interpreting in hospitals and at welfare appointments, and translating technical documents. Roberto spends his time going to ESL school and working on various film and video projects. Life is good.

At some point I'll share some photos, perhaps from our wedding at City Hall, or from recent travel to Hawaii, New Mexico, and Italy/Slovenia. And I'll share stories. There are SO many stories from the last two years that I want to get out before the details dull. But for now, a small synopsis of Book Three thus far:

  • I healed my heart from the end of a marriage, relationship, partnership, and friendship
  • I lived with my mom for 1.5 years for the first time since I was 15
  • I started working as an interpreter
  • I reconnected with my roots in the Italy/Slovenia border region
  • I opened myself to finding love again, and did!
  • I lived in San Francisco for 6 months with Roberto in a shared apartment in the very foggy Outer Richmond neighborhood, and eventually rented a place of our own in the East Bay. 
  • I realized that I want to be a mother. 
  • We got pregnant!!
  • We found out at 13 weeks that our baby had Turner's Syndrome and the pregnancy was not viable.
  • We lost the baby at 14 weeks.
  • We got married!! (Very strange to be celebrating and grieving at the same time).
  • I have a new name - Ali Ambrosio!!
  • My dad was diagnosed with cancer (again) and had major surgery. Thankfully he's now recovering.
  • Roberto had a heart attack (he is 40 and otherwise healthy) and we discovered he has several congenital heart defects. So so so grateful he received treatment and is now seemingly okay.
  • Contemplated moving to the Big Island of Hawaii (the tropics were calling big time, but we realized our destiny is elsewhere)
  • Currently figuring out how to make life work in the Bay Area, with a medium-term plan to spend half our time in Italy/Slovenia.
So far Book Three has been dizzyingly intense. You can understand why I need to write again. Looking forward to sharing here frequently, I've missed blogging and missed interacting with you, my lovely readers, if any of you are still out there after all this time. :)

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Tractors and Translating and Tanzanite

My life right now! I am working on a custom tanzanite and white gold ring for a client-friend. It is a piece for her daughter, using a stone bought when my client was in Tanzania a decade ago, a gift to commemorate her daughter graduating high school and celebrating a birthday.


It's been a massively challenging piece to make. Lots of very small scale complex curves. It's hard to make thick wire do what you want it to when you are working tiny. You need lots of leverage. Also rectangular stones are by far the hardest to set in my opinion. So much precision. So much laser-focus measuring and cutting. And the soldering setup. OH, the soldering setup is so hard. But it is a wonderful way to continue developing my skills. Nothing like a project that twists your brain and challenges your endurance and ingenuity. It's nearly done. Yay.

When I'm not in the studio, I'm working as an in-person Portuguese interpreter here in the Bay Area. Mostly it's accompanying families on their children's medical appointments (well-child visits, cardiologist, dermatologist, endocrinologist, etc) but this last week I interpreted at a special needs school for 8 different people (school principal, student's father, teachers, county mental health representatives, occupational therapist) as they went over the student's annual progress, academic performance, behavioral issues, and goals for the next year. It was intense and high-level interpreting, as people were presenting formal reports and recommendations. All my experience writing business plans and donor reports was useful, as there is a similar vocabulary to talk about goals, recommendations, and evaluations across sectors.

Also in a throwback to Mozambique, I am doing written translations for an agricultural project in the Northern part of the country. I'm grateful that while translating on-the-ground in Moz, I took the time to put together a vocabulary dictionary with regional specifics and reminders to myself of particularly hard-to-translate expressions. I'm definitely using that to remember the local terms for things like "weeding," "mechanized land preparation," and "demand," all the while learning new things about field preparation and the benefits of using tractors and disking and improved seeds. Very interesting, and thankfully so far the source texts have been very well-written, which makes translating so much smoother!

Ok. Back to work. Time to set the tanzanite.